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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

tvtropes.org & what it implies

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/01/10 at 11:32 AM

Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Over at ARCADE, Andrew Goldstone had a post about tvtropes.org, which he describe as “is an amazing wiki devoted to the ‘tropes’ of television, film, fiction, and, potentially, everything. The organizing idea of the site is the trope, very loosely defined as any convention or pattern to be found in and around these cultural objects.” What makes TVT interesting, of course, is that it is not run by scholars, it’s run by ordinary folks, by fans. Goldstone is interested in what TVT implies about the future of the humanities. He thus takes comfort in the fact that it is formalist in method, indicating that, whatever the current state of affairs in the academy, formalist isn’t dead. He is also pleased that “the site is resolutely ecumenical in its treatment of culture.” Anything’s fair game.

He goes on to point out:

On the one hand, it means--just as media studies and cultural studies have been insisting all along--that popular culture, far from being a wasteland of zombielike acquiescence and repetition, is shot through with self-reflexivity, creative variation, and analytic thinking. Academic values and the values of other parts of culture at large may not be as divergent as we think in the darkest watches of the night.


What interests me, at the moment, however, is the extent to which this “self-reflexivity, creative variation, and analytic thinking” reflects the success of literary and cultural studies pedagogy over the past half century (or more). Have we succeeded in creating a new kind of more or less routine public discourse about fictional texts?

Note that I’m not claiming that the academy gets sole responsibility for this, that pop culture really would be “a wasteland of zombielike acquiescence” if it weren’t for us. I don’t for a minute believe anything so silly. At the same time, I observe that it’s not as though popular culture were over there in some other universe having little or no connection with the universe in which we do our research and teach undergraduates. It’s the same universe.

The Buffyverse

Some years ago I “listened in” on web conversations among a particular group of buffistas, fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The discussions started out at the Table Talk section of Salon magazine and then migrated to an independent all-Buffy (and related matters) site called The Phoenix. The people who posted there (and, apparently, are still posting) were intelligent and articulate – probably ranging from college students to post-college folks in their 20s and 30s. There was some lit crit and cultural studies terminology tossed in, but the remarks were generally informal, but sometimes rather sophisticated.

In particular, it’s quite obvious that these Buffy fans have various ways of relating to the characters in the stories.  There was, of course, quite a bit of discussion of the actions, attitudes, motivations, etc. of these characters as though they were real people. What are they up to, and why? Some of this discussion is psychological in nature and some is moral.

Yet the fans were quite aware that the characters are just characters in a fiction, a TV show. Thus you would find statements about whether or not a character is “working” well and suggestions for what they should be like. There was quite a bit of discussion about what Jos Whedon, the producer, was doing or likely to do with a character.  There was also discussion of the actors playing the characters and how well they did.

What’s interesting is that these various modes all co-exist within the same unfolding conversation. This particular audience responded to the characters as real people and discussed them in those terms. At the same time they were aware of the characters as creatures of fiction and discussds them in those terms as well.

I don’t know just what such discussions owe to college-level courses in literature and cultural studies. But I would think there is some influence. As I’ve indicated, people don’t watch TV in one universe and take college courses in an entirely different one.

A New Baseline?

Now, if that all represents a baseline level of knowedge and sophistication about texts, what can we, as professional scholars, build upon that? If that’s the baseline, what can we do that’s deeper and more comprehensive? But also, what does it say about the growth of culture that a mode of thought that once was the province of an elite has now become routinely available in the population?


Bill, these are precisely the kinds of questions that I’ve been working on over the last ten years or so — in the context both of research and of pedagogy.

I’ve already posted in other discussions a link to one of my papers on the issue (which I think of as a question of “culture & pedagogy"), so I won’t do it again now (unless you want me to). I’ve also got some as yet unfinished and unpublished writing on the questions you raise at the end of this post, i.e. about (1) the extent to which these forms of engagement can be attributed to academic studies of culture, and (2) what’s at stake in the “popularisation” of formerly “exclusive” (in all senses of the term) techniques of cultural criticism.

I can’t go into detail right now, but regarding question 1, I will say that while college-level courses in literature and cultural studies can obviously claim somecredit for the situation you describe, I don’t think the connection between academic study of culture and the popular forms of cultural criticism is particularly straightforward or secure.

By on 06/02/10 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Post whatever links you’ve got, Rob, that’s what we’re here for.

By Bill Benzon on 06/02/10 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scholarship is a human impulse, not something confined to the academy. On the contrary, in my experience the level of expertise found among fans tends to surpass what’s found in academic treatments of the same subject: fans have fewer bureaucratic distractions and more intense competition.

By Ray Davis on 06/02/10 at 09:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, yeah, Ray, but as I remarked at the ARCADE discussion of tvtropes:

About two years ago I watched a potentially excellent Wikipedia article about manga (Japanese graphic novels) get eaten up by fans who were passionate about manga, but had no idea of how to get “outside” their particular interests and craft a useful introductory article that was at one and the same time comprehensive and succinct. Initially the major author of the article was a colleague of mine, Tim Perper. He’d read a lot manga, is an expert on the subject, and a skilled and experienced scholar. He just gave up on working on the article.

Writing such an article takes the kind of intellectual craftsmanship that comes only from experience in writing such things. The fans really didn’t know what they were doing. The last time I checked—about two months ago—the manga article was on editorial lock-down because disputes had gotten out of hand. Crowd-sourcing doesn’t always work.


By Bill Benzon on 06/02/10 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment


It doesn’t address the issues precisely as you’ve laid them out, but it comes pretty close. There are two key issues intertwined: (1) the supposed “obsolescence” of the “high/low” distinction, for which many academics (and conservative education journalists) credit the rise of of cultural studies and its affirmation of the popular as worthy of study; and (2) the question of the link between the academic study of culture and popular practices of cultural consumption. I pointedly don’t discuss fandom, but take cultural reviewing, rather as a privileged site for thinking about similar questions to those you raise above.

By on 06/02/10 at 09:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s true that a good instructor who teaches an introductory class will probably feel impelled to provide some sort of easily grasped delineation of the field, with easy entry paths. Not all academics are such instructors, however. I’ve certainly encountered tenured professors unable, either in print or in person, to extricate themselves from their engrained context. Surely someone around here remembers a subgenre called “High Theory,” for example.

No, if you’re really after that sort of professional discipline, you’re better off with a professional journalist than with a professional academic. (Non-celebrity non-sports journalism, anyway. To the layperson, celebrity journalism makes about as much sense as a biochemistry paper.)

Sadly, however, whether the succinct introduction comes from a journalist or an academic, its accessbility may rely less on intellectual craftsmanship than on appalling ignorance.

By Ray Davis on 06/03/10 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, considering all the drivel written in the name of science journalism, I don’t have the faith in journalists that you seem to have, Ray, nor do I think academics are as hopeless as you seem to think they are. The particular succinct intro I was talking about was being written by a skilled and well-informed academic and it was being ruined by eager fans who, whatever their knowledge, lacked intellectual discipline.

By Bill Benzon on 06/03/10 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, you overstate both my faith in journalists and my disdain for academics. I’m sorry my comment left an exaggerated impression.

Rob, leaving aside the relative “nuances and sophistication” of Kim Newman and and John Clute as opposed to Homi Bhabha and Camille Paglia, I’d like to point out that feminist analyses of patriarchy did not, in fact, originate within the academy. Although pedagogy plays some role in passing along habits of thought, other avenues exist, and I don’t really find their traces in the linked paper.

By Ray Davis on 06/03/10 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the observation, Ray (and for reading the paper). I wouldn’t disagree with either of those points.

All I’m doing is trying to think about the points of dis/connect academic theorising and popular/political practice in slightly more “material” terms than is usually the case. E.g. As you rightly recognise, I’m approaching it not in terms of the transmission of ideas but of “habits of thought” and techniques or practices of interpretation/engagement/viewing. Moreover, I pointedly keeping the focus limited to practices of popular culture consumption and the continued functioning of a mass culture discourse in those practices, because I don’t want to assume in advance that the points of connection take the same form or operate in the same way for all instances in which an academic-non-academic nexus might be imagined or desired. To that extent, I’m not seeking to be comprehensive or generalising in my analysis.

So, e.g., yes, feminist analyses of patriarchy did not originate within the academy, and individual feminist analyses continue to not originate within the academy. That’s kind of the point. Having said that, I’m only analysing a certain popular form of feminism in my paper to the extent that it draws on a mass culture discourse. Popular/public responses to popular culture (whether or not they are feminist) aren’t reducible to popular/public instances of feminist critique generally.

Pedagogy is certainly only one avenue along which academic ideas and techniques can travel to a world outside the academy, but — in the case of pop culture analysis and the critique/transformation of a mass culture discourse — the only other effective form that I can imagine is the academic-as-popular-journalist/reviewer, and one who works on and against that mass culture discourse as it operates in popular practices, rather than working out of a set of ideas that do not directly speak to that discourse. This type is not especially widespread, I don’t think.

By on 06/03/10 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interestingly, TVtropes itself is an outgrowth of those Buffistas discussions you mentioned.

By on 07/15/10 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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